WASHINGTON — U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan, which reached record highs in the past two months, will continue climbing, a top U.S. military commander warned Wednesday, saying the military is trying to oust the Taliban from places they've never been challenged before.
"We are going into places that have been significant support bases for the Taliban for the past several years," Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan in charge of day-to-day war operations, told reporters in a video teleconference briefing at the Pentagon. "And they're going to fight hard for those, and that's why we expect the casualties to go up."
Rodriguez was the first commander to comment about the state of the war since his former boss, Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was forced to resign last month over derogatory comments he and his staff made in a Rolling Stone magazine piece. President Obama named U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus as his replacement and Petraeus officially took command July 4.
With growing concerns among Afghans and U.S. legislators about the state of the war, Rodriguez assured that Afghanistan was on the right track despite rising U.S. troop deaths, rampant corruption, growing ethnic tensions, a stalled offensive in Kandahar, a doubtful political solution and a looming July 2011 deadline to show progress.
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He said he did not anticipate a change in strategy with Petraeus' arrival, calling it a personnel change. Rather, he said there was an "upward trajectory" toward establishing security in southern Afghanistan, the focus of recent U.S. efforts.
Rodriguez said that increased U.S. casualties should not be interpreted as Afghan regions falling back into the hands of the Taliban.
Instead, "This is a contest of will and a contest of threat and intimidation versus people who are going to stand up for themselves and their government, and then the security forces who are charged with protecting the Afghan people," he said.
There have been 94 U.S. fatalities in May and June, which account for about 8 percent of U.S. fatalities since the 2001 invasion. July has already seen 13 U.S. fatalities.
Rodriguez said that U.S. forces are now seeing less resistance in places like the Helmand River Valley and southern Afghan city of Marjah, the site of a major U.S. offensive earlier this year. While military leaders had once heralded the campaign in the Taliban stronghold, they have recently conceded that despite the offensive, the Taliban presence and fear campaign continues in Marjah.
But Rodriguez said there have been changes in the last week. The U.S. is gaining support in that previous Taliban hotspot and violence is falling. Rodriguez didn't have any statistical evidence to demonstrate an increased support of U.S. forces in former Taliban controlled regions.
Rodriguez said he expects Marjah to further develop a council in the upcoming months, a sign of its commitment to representative government.
"Those who think the Afghan people will let the nation slip back to the control of the insurgents don't know the Afghan people," he said. "Those who doubt fail to consider those people's courage and resilience."
He said that there is a clear increase in Afghan participation in their representative government in other parts of the country.
"Again, the important part is the people continue to participate with their government, the bazaars continue to be open and there are more and more schools open all the time," Rodriguez said.
There are 93,000 U.S. troops and 48,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan.